I like to use words I don’t understand. I’ve just discovered that the latest addition to this lexicon is ‘utopian.’ I employ it to describe a more perfect vision of the society in which we currently exist, but after reading the book by Thomas More that introduced us to the term, I’ve been forced to fire it for faking its resume.
499 years ago, More decided that there was something a bit off about the world around him. He lived in a society in which “aristocrats, goldsmiths and money lenders… are rewarded for their laziness or their unnecessary activities by a splended life of luxury.” At the other end of the scale, “labourers, coachmen carpenters and farmhands who never stop working like carthorses” for the good of society can expect to enjoy scorn, poverty and neglect from cradle to grave.
So far, so relatable. But it’s when you get to grips with what More thinks would be an improvement that the eyes start to bulge.
Utopia is an island nation, founded by a benevolent dictator. Everyone is completely content with their lives and their lot, which is lucky, considering how many of them are slaves. Voluntary slavery is, in fact, the only possible way of immigrating to Utopia, though there are ample opportunites to wind up in involuntary bondage. There’s no personal property, but thanks to a strong underlying work ethic and mandatory belief in the posthumous transition of the soul to heaven/hell, everyone happily produces everything anyone needs and gives it to them free. It helps that no one’s hung up on clothes – they all have one set of the same uniform, and they’re content to live in communal dorms in small hamlets that they’re discouraged from leaving. You can expect to live to a ripe old age in Utopia, until such time as your life is deemed unsatisfactory, at which point the authorities will counsel you to euthenise yourself through starvation.
Utopia is a man’s world. You get to boss your wife and kids about, and when it comes to matrimony you know exactly what you’re in for, thanks to a cunning system where the prospective bride is exhibited stark naked to the prospective bridesgroom. After all, “when you’re buying a horse” you make a thorough examination of the beast, whereas “with a bride you don’t even bother to take it out of its wrappings. You judge the whole woman from a few square inches of face.”
The benefit of this arrangement for the successful bride is that once a man has made his choice “if she turns ugly after the wedding he must just resign himself to his fate.”
There are many other delightful habits and beliefs that solve social problems recognisable to our own time through the creation of appalling alternatives that leave you yearning for the corruption, inequity and over-optimism that got us here in the first place.
From a writer’s point of view it’s sobering to reflect that any endeavour to imagine a world set up for the better seems doomed through prejudice and myopicness to make a roundabout case for the status quo, while the dystopian fantasties of 1984, Brave New World and The Hunger Games suggest that if we stay on the path we’re on we’re fucked. So all road lead to hell. If that’s the case, I’m left a little bit bemused as to who has the ability to help define improvement and foster change.
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.